Belfast Telegraph

Mark Steel: The South Koreans of north Surrey sure know how to bang a gong

If anyone's wondering where to watch South Korea's final match in Group B on Tuesday, they should go to New Malden, a small town in Surrey.

Because somehow New Malden contains 8,000 Koreans, the biggest concentration outside Korea in the world, and the splendid part is no one knows why. Some Korean supporters at the match against Argentina had their theories. "It's because there are good schools here," said Jin, but that can't be right. Surely parents in Korea don't say "Seoul High is good for science but their Ofsted reports are behind New Malden. Unfortunately we're outside the catchment area so we'll have to move to north Surrey."

Whatever the reason, there were four screens in the garden of The Fountain pub to cater for the community. And more striking than the nationality of the crowd was the gender, as the majority was made up of mums and their toddlers, in a sort of giant Korean World Cup one o'clock club. This was a football crowd I'd never contemplated before, and wondered whether they sit in circles teaching the kids songs such as "The referee on the bus is a wanker – all day long."

There were so many toddlers it would have been reasonable to have a special commentary done by the Teletubbies, so that for Argentina's first goal they said, "Uh-oh, where ball gone? Poor Park kick ball in own goal. Oh dear poor Park Park." I asked Alex if she always took her young child to watch the matches, and she said, "Child yes, and granny," as if no one would go to a game without their granny.

We're not used to a family-oriented football culture at British football grounds, where the "family enclosure" amounts to 30 seats in the corner, in which the rule seems to be "When you scream, 'You're shit and you know you are' try and do it a bit less aggressively than normal as this is the family enclosure."

So it took a while for the brain to process the female chanting and cheering as connected to the match, as it's not the tone you're used to, like if you heard Ian Paisley whispering, or The Queen snarling, "Are you looking for a slap?"

Except most of the time no one could hear any commentary, because a man in a beautiful multi-coloured silk robe banged a thick metal gong, that looked like the sort of brass pot you see in the kitchens of stately homes, very loudly, as if he was an angry butler signalling dinner was bloody well ready. Anyone stuck right behind it would have happily swapped this for the relatively peaceful tranquillity of the vuvuzela, a soothing device designed for meditating yourself to sleep compared to "CLANG ding-ding CLANG CLANG" at a volume that made its owner sound like a Buddhist Iron Maiden.

The clanging went up and down with the flow of the match, reaching a peak at South Korea's better moments, so a tedious passage of scrappy midfield stalemate was a delight, but then he CLANG CLANG CLANGED for a Korean throw-in which must be the loudest noise ever made in proportion to the footballing advantage it represented.

It was 2-1 to Argentina at half-time, so a revival seemed possible, especially as with Maradona managing the Argentinians there was a chance they could start the second half with Messi in goal and Tevez replaced by his mum. But Argentina got better and better and scored a third.

"Do you support North Korea when they're playing," I asked the spectators, and they all declared that of course they did, which seems hopeful as you can't imagine a country going to war with somewhere whose team they support in the World Cup. But just as hopeful was the sprinkling of non-Koreans among the crowd. Steve, a local painter and decorator, said, "Me and my mates love coming down here for the Korean matches as it's such a great atmosphere." A couple in their sixties drove from Guildford for the same reason, and at one table a bunch of railway workers were planning their next mission. "We're looking for a Nigerian pub," they said. "We've booked annual leave and do this all day, we do it every World Cup."

Maybe the politicians who claim hostility to immigrants is caused by too much immigration should watch the next match there, because the concentration of Koreans in one area appears to have resulted in a joyful camaraderie.

But when the fourth Argentine goal went in Alex seemed genuinely cross. "Not right," she said, "Four too much."

There was a delightful innocence about her analysis, as if the score could be haggled over, and they should never have given in to Maradona's greedy demand for four when three was quite enough.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph